Few would question Tunisia's claim to be a force within African football, the Carthage Eagles having been crowned continental champions at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations and finished runners-up at the region's showpiece event in 1996 and 1965.
However, on the world stage, it is quite a different story. Despite having participated at four FIFA World Cup™ finals (1978, 1998, 2002 and 2006), the senior national team have yet to make it past the group stages. At U-20 level, the North Africans managed one win and two defeats en route to a first-round elimination at the inaugural FIFA U-20 World Cup on home soil in 1977, and have failed to impress on subsequent occasions.
And the country's record at the FIFA U-17 World Cup is equally modest. In their debut appearance at Japan 1993, the North Africans failed to reach the knockout stage after losing to Poland and Chile, and only a win over China PR in their last match prevented a humiliating whitewash.
All that changed, however, at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007, where Maher Kanzari's charges have gone some way towards rebuilding their reputation with their march to the knockout stages for the first time. His charges booked their spot in the last 16 with a game to spare after following their 4-2 opening-round win over Belgium with a 3-1 defeat of perennial FIFA U-17 World Cup qualifiers, the USA.
Explaining the importance of the game back home, the coach told FIFA.com: "In Tunisia, football unites people and it's also our way to tell the world about our country." And his young charges have taken advantage of the opportunity at Korea 2007 to shine on the world stage.
Although Tunisia have no single standout player, they have in Nour Hadhria, Oussama Boughandi and Youssef Msakni a very talented midfield trio with the ability to dictate the pace of the game. Front men Khaled Ayari and Rafik Dkhil, who both scored in their two matches, also pose a threat to opponents, while at the back, Bilel has shown himself to be very adept on the right-hand side.
In the USA game that saw the Carthage Eagles go through, Hadhria scored twice from the spot, and the player later told FIFA.com: "We've been playing together for four years now and we're like a family. The unity between the players is the key to our success."
Kanzari was sounding cautiously optimistic as he contemplated his side's upcoming games. "We were delighted to have picked up a historic win, but we cannot lose focus yet and won't play any differently against Tajikistan. If we come top of our Group, then we'll be able to play the second-placed team from Group D, but there is nobody in particular that I'd like to avoid. We'll play our own football regardless."